While toy companies today can create hyper-realistic miniature versions of your favorite movie stars, some of the most expensive Star Wars action figures look absolutely nothing like any character you’ve ever seen on the big screen.
Back when George Lucas was preparing to make the first Star Wars, movie-inspired toys and licensing were such an afterthought in Hollywood that the filmmaker easily secured the merchandising rights for the blockbuster franchise. And Kenner, the company contracted to make Star Wars action figures, didn’t even make enough of the toys in time for that first post-release Christmas in 1977, leaving millions of American kids to unwrap certificates good for future shipments of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker figures. But it was a far grimmer situation for little Star Wars fans in poor countries and satellite nations behind the Iron Curtain, where international tensions and high import taxes meant that the galaxy far, far away was absolutely unreachable.
“Because of trade embargoes in certain countries, a lot of the stuff was made during the Cold War,” Joseph Yglesias, a leading expert on Star Wars bootleg toys who is writing a book on the subject, tells Yahoo Movies. “So a lot of Soviet countries couldn’t get licensed products legally imported. For some reason, they could get the movies but they couldn’t get the toys. So to have something for the kid to play with, that was affordable for the average worker in say, Poland, a lot of these bootleg companies filled the gap.”
A set of Hungarian bootleg toys (Joseph Yglesias)
Manufacturers big and small quietly churned out counterfeit action figures, using smuggled plastic molds and lots of imagination to craft unique — and often dodgy — recreations of the Kenner dolls. Some of these bootlegs — originally sold in small markets to working-class customers — have become highly sought-after by collectors, with one high-end figure pegged at anywhere between $50,000 and $80,000, according to Yglesias.
“Over the years, it’s this sort of really tacky, hideous-looking crap that people have come to love,” Jordan Hembrough, a collector who hosts the TV show Toy Hunter, says. “And they like it because it’s so kitschy and so cool.”
The most desirable line of bootlegs was made in Turkey, where trade hurdles rendered American goods unavailable to working-class Turks. A company called SB Product manufactured the Uzay toys, which Yglesias labels “the Cadillac” of Star Wars bootlegs, in the late '80s.
“The construction of the figures is amazing,” he says. “They are, construction-wise, as close to the Kenner figures in quality as you’ll find in any bootleg line. Most of the other bootleg lines, quality-wise, are even at their best cheesy. Uzay were made with steel-injection mode. They weren’t just haphazardly done.”
Still, some of the Turkish toy packaging was laughable; the Imperial Gunner has a photo of an action figure working diligently on a giant calculator. That’s part of the fun, Yglesias says, and what makes the older bootlegs far more coveted than their newer, more accurate contemporaries. Some of the Uzay figures are so rare that prices on them have gone through the roof; the same goes for many of the foreign figures, which were played with and discarded over 30 years ago, when collecting and preserving toys for future value was not a big concern of kids behind the Iron Curtain.
“There are only three of the character called the Head Man, an Emperor’s royal guard with a gold-plated head,” says Yglesias. “It comes with a sword and a shield in the package. Even out of package, a complete one is incredibly rare.”
Yglesias owns one of the packaged Head Man figures, which, if it were to be auctioned, would likely fetch $80,000, he estimates; the most recent sale was for $30,000, and since, a $50,000 bid for another was rejected. The others currently belong to a collector in Britain… and '80s rock star Rick Springfield, who is an avid Star Wars toy collector.
Uzay Head Man (Joseph Yglesias)
Poland also boasts a memorable tradition of bootlegs, with seven distinct lines and an even better backstory. Several generations of the toys were produced by Evanplast, which made them in the dark of the night in a factory that, by day, was used to manufacture items for the Communist government. One line, which has 20 different characters, is a hodgepodge of body parts, featuring arms and legs taken from biker scout, TIE fighter pilot, and AT-AT driver figures. The most valuable of these toys, a black-armored Hoth stormtrooper, is worth $20,000.
Another line, which features unarticulated figures, is known for its psychedelic colors and bodies that advertised their illegality. “One was taken from Kenner figures and they just molded from that, so you can still see some of the copyrights on the back,” Yglesias says. “They’re in tons of different funky colors. Some look like regular figures, but I’ve got a pink Ewok. There are lots of strange stuff in that line that’s really fun.”
Another collector, posting on a Polish Star Wars site, boasts a collection of five multicolor Nien Nunb figures, a trippy niche collection if there ever was one.
Other now-infamous fakes were manufactured in Hungary, Brazil, Mexico, and Japan. Some were technically considered knockoffs — meaning that they were not advertising themselves as Star Wars toys, strictly speaking — with names such as Galaxy Empire and Japan’s Imai Star Command (which featured an R2-D2-like model with, inexplicably, a Nazi swastika design). Recently, a very rare Hungarian Boba Fett bootleg sold for $15,000 at auction, illustrating both how popular that country’s line has become, and just how steep the “Boba Fett Factor,” as Yglesias calls it, can hike prices on the beloved character’s toys.
One collector estimates that there were over 275 Mexican bootleg figure types, some more authentic-looking than others; the Han Solo with the astronaut bubble helmet on the lower end of the quality spectrum.
Yglesias’ creepy Ewok collection
Mexico presented an interesting case; the country was not blocked from receiving any licensed action figures, as they had their own licensee, a company called Lili Ledy. But for average citizens, it was often easier to get inventive than splash the cash on authentic Star Wars gear.
“When we took Toy Hunter down to Mexico, I was looking at all the Mexican bootlegs and they’re absolutely crap,” Hembrough said. “I was asking a collector who was my guide, and he said 'We were so poor here, if someone got a legitimate figure, we made copies for our friends.’ They made blow-molds, they’re hollow inside and crappy and tacky, but that’s what kids played with.”
The fakery was not limited to poor foreign countries; the tradition of ripping off Star Wars toys in America is a long and sneaky one, as well. Kenner’s sluggish start to toy distribution in 1977 opened up a lane for opportunistic entrepreneurs and hack inventors, who did not mind pushing the limit on copyright law.
The Tomland Starroid Raiders, a curiously named line of Lego-like figures popular in the late '70s, clearly took inspiration from George Lucas’s smash hit. But while they were cheap knockoffs, they weren’t blatant attempts to cheat consumers. Another early rip-off was the Force Beam, a cleverly named laser sword. It was essentially a flashlight with a plastic tube attached — not much different than the real lightsaber toy — and the Force Beam’s manufacturer, Jack A. Levin and Associates, was soon hit with one of the first cease-and-desist notices sent by Lucasfilm. Using the name Star Wars in the advertisement wasn’t all that wise a move, in retrospect.
Other knock-off names throughout the years include “Space Wars,” “Battling Spaceships,” “Galaxy Empire,” “Galaxy Cop,” “Galaxy Heroes,” “Amy Heroes,” “Battle Wars,” “Star Warrs” and “Star War.”
Meantime, the creators of the infamous “Star Knight” toy in the mid-'90s made the odd design choice to stick a Darth Vader-like figure onto a clunky police motorcycle. While that creation elicits laughs, collectors are generally less interested in the newer fakes. “The modern stuff doesn’t have the charm or the imagination of the vintage ones,” Yglesias says, speaking words echoed by much of the fan base.
With the boom of Star Wars merchandise that both preceded and has followed The Force Awakens — sales reached $1 billion on the September 4 launch event that Disney dubbed “Force Friday” — the bootleg market is still churning out plenty of unauthorized products.
According to Yglesias, unlicensed Lego sets are a particularly hot item right now, with a handful of different manufacturers producing them in China alone. They look real, but aren’t all that necessary, given the mass availability of relatively cheap licensed Star Wars products around the world. The brick-based models serve no blacked-out market of desperate fans, existing only to fool collectors and kids looking for the real thing — and as such, represent the Dark Side of the bootlegging world.
It’s unlikely that such a rich assortment of amateurish figures will ever be made again, thanks to both the reach the authentic toys achieve in a global economy and Disney’s sheer corporate muscle and trigger-happy litigators. The figures from the '70s and '80s that do remain are now ancient relics, each attesting to the power of Star Wars to bring worlds together.
Watch the cast of ‘The Force Awakens’ play with their action figures: